Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Breakdown

So here I am a volunteer teacher and I have traveled all this way to live like a righteous dude- stripped down to the necessities, adhering to the local customs, reducing my carbon footprint, making do with the bare minimum. In many ways I left the United States with such eagerness because I felt crushed under its cycle of consuming, every day more of my "poor" students waddling into their first class carrying an over 300 calorie mocha raspberry Dunkachino something or other, bitching about their workload or how stupid the Melville reading was, or on the other end sitting in a concert by one of the preeminent string quartets in the world playing something literally mind boggling in its dynamism and seeing some bored Rockport socialite yawn and leave at intermission, leaving her front row seat empty. Even when I was working towards something in which I believed - helping bright and motivated students navigating the artificially treacherous waters of selective college admissions, to best enable them to achieve their academic potential after a dismally unchallenging high school experience- I found I could not help but focus mostly on the insanity of a $52,000 a year price tag, the indulgence of catering to students' luxuries, and the debauched and jaded sense of world weariness so pervasive on campus. I struggled with my declining financial status, in spite of working heavy and living light; my own childrens' choices, in spite of reading the books and going to the right parent groups; my waning sense of purpose, in spite of having my heart in what I thought was, if not a noble and wholly unselfish place, at least a positive and constructive one. When I came across this bit in the novel by A.S. Byatt I recently finished, it fit like O.J,'s glove should have back in the day:

"Sometimes I feel," said Roland carefully, "that the best state is to be without desire. When I look at myself-"

"If you have a self-"

"At my life, at the way it is- what I really want is to- to have nothing. An empty clean bed. I have this image of a clean empty bed in a clean empty room, where nothing is asked or to be asked."

"I know what you mean. No, that's a feeble thing to say. It's a much more powerful coincidence than that. That is what I think about when I am alone. How good it would be to have nothing. And the same image. An empty bed in an empty room. White."

And yet. Yet the moment I moved into my apartment I hustled up a very decent sounding little stereo. I wanted my Bassnectar and my Bach to resonate with excellent treble and bass. And yet. Yet I want my photos on this blog to be crisp and large and gorgeous. And yet. Yet I found I could not stand taking my old Zoom out even one more time,  could not listen to its Chinese steel creak and groan, or readjust the floppy chain, or fill the every-third-day-flat-tires. I told myself that I was afraid of the inevitable breakdown somewhere on a back road, when even with a phone I would not be able to guide someone to come and get me, but this could happen with a brand new bike of any quality. The truth of the matter was that I was riding less because I did not enjoy riding the Zoom. I could have made do, and if I was authentically poor I damn well would have. Instead I took a saawng tao to NKP and dropped $3500 bht ($116)- half my monthly stipend on a lightly used, much nicer bike. It is not the gorgeous Cinelli my father gave me, which I have awaiting me in the States, but I look on her with great fondness parked there in the corner of my living room.
So what am I really made of and what is my "white room" really about?  Clearly I indulged myself for sensous and aesthetic reasons. So what is wrong with chubby little Susie having her daily 48 ounces of coffee and chemical sugar substitute? And where does it end? On what philosophic grounds can I condemn the American magnate building a 344 foot yacht with its requisite helicopter pad and multiple jacuzzis?

It is an old story. I am sure all my former students could tell you all about Pfister and his moaning and groaning about American materialism. It was the only thing more boring than all those stupid books I had them read! This dichotomy of indulgence and abstention is readily evident in Thailand, and I suppose most emerging second tier countries- where monks symbolize the renunciation of the material world, but most people give to the monks in order to be lucky and get rich quickly. Heady stuff I am far too incapable of sorting out with my feeble brain. What I can tell you: It felt bloody wonderful to head out on my new bike out on the newly paved main highway, to feel its quiet wheels spin down the tarmac, to shift gears readily and efficiently, to feel the brakes pull me to a quick stop at the night market. So, yes, I still want that white room with a clean white bed, but I guess I want a few stylish white Apple products in there, and a bicycle or two...



  1. One of your best yet. My white room would have a coffee pot and some fair trade organic dark roast brewing. No sugary chemicals for me though, black all the way!

  2. You've given me cause to pause ... perhaps I will have a white room once the walls are finished. I am reluctant to strip away the rusting corrugated sheets, for now. They provide a nice transference of solar heat.

    My wife keeps pestering me to put windows were all the air flows through. She did that again this morning while I pecked away at my wireless keyboard and reviewed said text on my 25 inch flat screen.

    They came over by boat with two bicycles, some tools, a rock collection and a few more things I was unwilling or unready to detach from.

    Someone once told me that letting go is synonymous with acceptance. I can accept that I am not wiling to let go of everything.

    Everything goes eventually any how.

  3. I'm not convinced materialism (or rather, obtaining luxuries for the purpose of comfort or entertainment) is inherently detrimental to the human condition. Society is a stickler for precise control, and I think people get upset at material indulgence because it is so often executed in one of the two extremes- excessively or deficiently. People are always looking for ways to be happier- but happiness is a difficult thing to obtain in a world of scarcity. We must use our mental and physical ability to obtain both the necessities and the comforts of life, only then may we fulfill our desires for happiness and ultimately fulfill (as Aristotle asserts) the purpose of man.
    But like I said, society is a stickler for concise control- from emotions to intellect, from the physical to the economical, waste and deficiency are some of the most loathed attributes of human consumption in the modern world. This is why we all hate seeing people destroy their bodies with terrible foods, why we loathe that 2% of the upper class who spend money more frivolously than an infant discards excrement, society doesn't hate material, or materialism, or comfort; society hates inefficiency, stupidity, decadence, overindulgence, especially in the context of a resource-scarce environment.

    What I'm trying to say is that I think it's cool that you got a new bike. I think it was a really good idea and maybe you shouldn't feel as bad about it as you seem to wish you did.
    I guess the only hitch is that I'm in fancy america where the fountains ooze (artificially sweetened maltodextrin gluten-free) honey and the streets are paved in (depreciated 99.9% pure) gold. But I have also put a lot of money into MY bike and from that pane I can see the benefits of a new bike.

  4. I mean, so long as you can see the utility of your indulgence, there's a lot to be said for ipods and fancy laptops if we can enjoy them. Lots of people just consume for the sake of consumption and really make the rest of us consumers look bad.

    I probably should have done an outline for my comment before I wrote it, I ended up kinda swerving a bit too much to the realm of generalized philosophy.

  5. Okay Philip. Time to cut back on the coffee.

  6. you know how you can repent for your materialism? donating your old bike to the bike-less. i know someone who would LOVE to refill the tires every 3 days (me).

  7. sweet bike, dude.

  8. I'll have you know that I loved all those stupid books you made us read, and I always feel like I'm on the inside of a joke when I hear Miss Havisham references!